Like the other two of this silent-era triad which I’ve written about here, this Indian-German collaboration produced by Himansu Rai and directed by Franz Osten is a visual feast. Filmed outdoors on location and beautifully photographed, it’s the story of Empress Mumtaz and the Taj Mahal (based on a play by Niranjan Pal) with some creative twists and turns. As with A Throw Of Dice, Himansu Rai loses the girl to Charu Roy; but sweet-faced Seeta Devi plays villainess here instead of heroine with a relish that steals the show.
Oh, what a treasure this film is! It brought the light and beauty of 1920s India into my cold snowy winter, and cheered me considerably. I can only hope that it will someday soon be available in gorgeous professionally embellished dvd form like its sibling A Throw of Dice. The movie itself is more a series of staged vignettes than what we now consider a motion picture, although there is plenty of pageantry: shambling elephants, prancing horses, trotting camels, and crowds of people. And if the story is a bit over-simplified (adapted from Edwin Arnold’s 1897 epic poem by the same name about the life of Prince Gautama, the Buddha) it doesn’t really matter to me. This is a rare glimpse of history indeed, and a visual and creative feast.
First of all, I would like to thank Muz for sending this to me. He has also provided me with Pukar, Sikandar and Raj Nartaki (review upcoming), and thank goodness people like him appreciate Hindi cinema history enough to preserve it when they can. I appreciate his sharing these films with me more than words can ever express, and the same goes for the other friends I’ve made here who share their rare treasures with me too. Bless all of you!
This film from Bombay Talkies is widely written about as an early classic. It was a huge hit, and launched Ashok Kumar into stardom (albeit a bit reluctantly!). It’s also my first look at Devika Rani onscreen. Unfortunately there aren’t subtitles, and I think a lot of this film’s impact comes from its dialogues; they went way over my head. The basic plot is easy to follow, but there is a lot of “room talk” (or maybe “porch talk” is better here) which drives the action. Even without understanding the dialogues, though, I found this film ineffably sad. Though it is 73 years old, it is unfortunately just as relevant today with its portrayal of prejudice and intolerance. Will we never learn anything from our mistakes?
I have to start out this review by thanking dustedoff and Laura for bringing this film to my attention. It never occurred to me that anything from the silent era in India might be available on DVD, let alone so beautifully restored with English intertitles! A gorgeous soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney which complements the visuals perfectly has also been added. Many of these older films are worth watching mostly for their historical value, but this—this is a treasure and a treat, all at once. It’s also short, clocking in at 74 minutes.
It’s the third film from the collaboration between Himansu Rai and German director Franz Osten, which had already produced Light of Asia and Shiraz. Osten was working with his brother Peter Ostermayr’s production company Emelka in Germany when he met Himansu and Devika Rani, and came to India to work with them on these joint efforts. This partnership also gave us 1936’s Achhut Kanya starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani; but when World War II broke out Osten and the other German technicians were arrested by the British and then deported, and Himansu Rai died in 1940.